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Counterfeit Dealer Gets Smoked in Trademark Preliminary Injunction Proceeding

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a preliminary injunction barring the defendant from selling counterfeit e-cigarette and vaping products bearing the plaintiff’s logo because the plaintiff’s psychoactive products were legal and could support a valid trademark. AK Futures LLC v. Boyd St. Distro, LLC, Case No. 21-56133 (9th Cir. May 19, 2022) (Kleinfeld, Fisher, Bennett, JJ.)

AK Futures manufactures e-cigarettes and vaping products, including delta-8 THC goods marketed under its “Cake” brand. Delta-8 THC is a psychoactive compound found in the Cannabis sativa plant, which encompasses both hemp and marijuana. The compound is similar in effect to delta-9 THC, the primary psychoactive agent in marijuana, but delta-8 THC is typically manufactured from hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD). The cultivation and possession of hemp was legalized by the Farm Act in 2018.

AK Futures sued Boyd Street Distro, a Los Angeles purveyor of smoke products, for trademark and copyright infringement. Boyd Street sold virtually identical counterfeit Cake-branded e-cigarettes and vaping products containing delta-8 THC. At the time of suit, AK Futures had a registered copyright protecting its Cake logo—a stylized “C” overlaying a two-tier cake—and pending trademark applications for six marks incorporating the word “Cake” or the Cake logo for use in connection with e-cigarette products. The district court granted AK Futures’ motion for preliminary injunction. Boyd Street appealed.

On appeal, Boyd Street conceded the copyright claim, but argued that AK Futures could not own a valid trademark in connection with its e-cigarettes and vaping products because the sale of delta-8 THC was prohibited under federal law. In response, AK Futures argued that the 2018 Farm Act legalized delta-8 THC and products containing the compound.

The Ninth Circuit agreed that AK Futures’ use of the marks in commerce was lawful and could give rise to trademark priority. The Court found that the “plain and unambiguous” text of the Farm Act indicated that delta-8 THC products were lawful. The Farm Act removed “hemp” and “tetrahydrocannabinols in hemp” from Schedule I in the Controlled Substances Act, where “hemp” is defined as “the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of that plant, including . . . all derivatives, extracts, [and] cannabinoids . . . with a delta-9 concentration of not more than .3 percent.” The Court noted that the delta-9 THC concentration level was the only statutory metric for distinguishing marijuana from hemp, and that the terms “derivative, extract, or cannabinoid” were substantially broad. The Court thus concluded that “hemp” encompasses delta-8 THC products that contain no more than 0.3% delta-9 THC.

Boyd Street argued that the US Drug Enforcement Agency had interpreted the Farm Act as not applicable to delta-8 THC because it is “synthetically derived” and argued that US Congress never intended the Farm Act to legalize psychoactive substances. The Ninth Circuit perfunctorily dismissed these arguments based on the clear and unambiguous statutory language. Since the Cake-branded products allegedly contained less than 0.3% delta-9 THC, the Court held that AK Futures was likely to succeed in demonstrating that its [...]

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Ninth Circuit Once Again Preserves Competitor’s Data-Scraping Rights

On remand from the Supreme Court of the United States, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reaffirmed its own 2019 opinion that preliminarily enjoined a professional networking platform from denying a data analytics company access to publicly available profiles. HiQ Labs, Inc. v. LinkedIn Corporation, Case No. 17-16783, (9th Cir., Apr. 18, 2022) (Wallace, Berzon, Berg (sitting by designation) JJ.).

Previously, the Supreme Court had granted certiorari in this case, but subsequently vacated the judgment and remanded back to the Ninth Circuit for further consideration in view of its  2021 decision in Van Buren v. United States. In Van Buren, the Supreme Court attempted to clarify the reach of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 (CFAA), holding that authorized computer access for arguably improper purposes likely does not constitute a violation of the CFAA. On remand, the Ninth Circuit concluded that Van Buren reinforced its determination that hiQ had raised “serious questions” about whether LinkedIn may invoke the CFAA to preempt hiQ’s claim of tortious interference.

HiQ is a data company that sells “people analytics” focused on predictive employee data. HiQ’s data is largely obtained by scraping public LinkedIn profiles with automated bots. In 2017, LinkedIn sent a demand letter to hiQ asserting that hiQ’s scraping activity was in violation of the CFAA, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the California penal code and common law. HiQ immediately filed suit seeking injunctive relief and a declaratory judgment that LinkedIn could not lawfully invoke the asserted claims. Granting hiQ’s motion for the preliminary injunction, the district court ordered LinkedIn to remove, and to refrain from implementing, any technical barriers to hiQ’s access to the LinkedIn public profiles.

The Ninth Circuit stated that a plaintiff seeking a preliminary injunction must establish the following:

  • It is likely to succeed on the merits.
  • It is likely to suffer irreparable harm absent the injunction.
  • The balance of equities tips in its favor.
  • The injunction is in the public interest.

This analysis required the Ninth Circuit to focus only on whether hiQ had raised serious questions on the merits of the factual and legal issues presented. The Ninth Circuit’s re-examination of these factors was nearly identical to its 2019 holding.

Starting with irreparable harm, the Ninth Circuit found that the survival of hiQ’s business was threatened since it depends on being able to access public LinkedIn member profiles. The Court also agreed, once again, with the district court’s determination that the balance of the equities tipped in hiQ’s favor. The Court found that the privacy interests of individuals who have opted to maintain a public LinkedIn profile did not outweigh hiQ’s interests in continuing its business. On this factor, the Court noted that “little evidence” suggested that LinkedIn users who choose to make their profiles public actually maintain an expectation of privacy with respect to publicly posted information. The Court also noted that LinkedIn does not own its users’ data, since users retain [...]

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First Sale Defense Bars Trademark Infringement Where Trademarked Component Is Adequately Disclosed

A US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit panel vacated a grant of summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff, holding that the first sale doctrine applies when a trademarked product is incorporated into a new product. Bluetooth SIG Inc. v. FCA US LLC, Case No. 21-35561 (9th Cir. Apr. 6, 2022) (per curiam).

Bluetooth SIG administers standards for Bluetooth technology. SIG owns and licenses the trademarks below to product manufacturers:

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) makes cars that contain Bluetooth-equipped head units. The head units are made by third-party suppliers that have been qualified by SIG, but FCA has not taken steps to qualify the Bluetooth capabilities in its cars. FCA uses the SIG trademarks on its head units and publications.

SIG sued FCA under the Lanham Act for trademark infringement. In its defense, FCA asserted the first sale doctrine. Under the doctrine, the right of a producer to control the distribution of its trademarked product does not extend past the first sale of the product. For example, a purchaser who stocks, displays and resells a producer’s product under a producer’s trademark violates no trademark rights under the Lanham Act. The district court granted partial summary judgment for SIG on the first sale issue, finding that the first sale doctrine was inapplicable because FCA’s conduct went beyond “stocking, displaying, and reselling a product.” FCA appealed.

The Ninth Circuit found that the lower court erred when it took a narrow view of the Ninth Circuit’s 1995 decision in Sebastian Int’l, Inc. v. Longs Drugs Stores Corp., in which the Court stated that “it is the essence of the ‘first sale’ doctrine that a purchaser who does no more than stock, display, and resell a producer’s product under the producer’s trademark violates no right conferred upon the producer by the Lanham Act.” The panel noted that the Sebastian Court never purported to articulate the outer bounds of the first sale doctrine; instead it simply captured the unauthorized resale of genuine goods.

The Ninth Circuit explained that the first sale doctrine also applies when a trademark is used to refer to a component incorporated into a new end product as long as the seller adequately discloses how the trademarked product was incorporated. The Court cited to the 1925 Supreme Court precedent in Prestonettes, Inc. v. Coty, which effectively extends the first sale doctrine beyond the examples stated in Sebastian. In Prestonettes, the Supreme Court held that trademark law did not prohibit a manufacturer from using a trademark, not to indicate the goods, but to say that the trademarked product was a component in a product being offered as new and changed. The Ninth Circuit also noted its 1998 holding in Enesco Corp. v. Price/Costco, in which it found that the first sale doctrine protected a retailer that resold dolls in allegedly inadequate packaging to the extent the repackaging was disclosed. The Enesco Court explained that if the public was adequately informed that [...]

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So You Wanna Play with Copyright? “Joyful Noise” Ostinato Isn’t Original Expression

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court’s order vacating a jury award of damages for copyright infringement and granting judgment as a matter of law, explaining that the musical work alleged to have been copied did not qualify as an original work of authorship but consisted only of “commonplace musical elements.” Marcus Gray PKA Flame et al. v. Katheryn Elizabeth Hudson PKA Katy Perry et al., Case No. 20-55401 (9th Cir. Mar. 10, 2022) (Clifton, Smith, Watford, JJ.)

Key Definitions:

  • A musical scale is a sequence of musical notes or tones by pitch.
  • A subset of seven notes is called the minor scale and can be referred to with alphabetic names (A, B, C, etc.) or scale degrees (1, 2, 3, etc.).
  • An ostinato is a repeating musical figure (for example, 3-3-3-3-2-2).

In 2007, Marcus Gray (Flame) purchased an ostinato and used it in the song “Joyful Noise.” The song was released in 2008. While “Joyful Noise” did not achieve significant commercial success or airtime, it received millions of views online. In 2013, American singer-songwriter Katy Perry created “Dark Horse,” which was a hit, resulting in her performance at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2015.

The “Joyful Noise” ostinato consists of notes, represented as 3-3-3-3-2-2-2-1 and 3-3-3-3-2-2-2-6, whereas Dark Horse’s ostinato contains 3-3-3-3-2-2-1-5. Both have a uniform rhythm and equal note duration in time.

Plaintiffs sued Perry and her co-defendants for copyright infringement. Plaintiffs presented circumstantial evidence that the defendants had a reasonable opportunity to access “Joyful Noise” and that the ostinatos in both songs were substantially similar. Plaintiffs did not present direct evidence that Perry and the others had copied elements of the song, instead relying on testimony from their expert musicologist, Dr. Todd Decker.

Decker testified that the ostinatos were similar in many aspects, but he also testified that there was no single element that caused him to believe the ostinatos at issue were “substantially similar” when viewed “in isolation.” The jury also heard testimony from Perry’s expert, who disagreed altogether that the ostinatos were substantially similar.

The jury found that the defendants had a reasonable opportunity to hear “Joyful Noise” before composing “Dark Horse,” that the two songs contained substantially similar copyrightable expression and that “Dark Horse” used protected material from “Joyful Noise.” The jury found the defendants liable for copyright infringement and awarded $2.8 million in damages. The district court vacated the award and granted judgment as a matter of law to defendants, concluding that the evidence at trial was legally insufficient to show that the “Joyful Noise” ostinato was a copyrightable original expression. The plaintiffs appealed.

The Ninth Circuit explained that because the plaintiffs did not present any direct evidence that the defendants copied the “Joyful Noise” ostinato, they were required to show that the defendants had access to the work and that the ostinatos were substantially similar.

The Ninth Circuit began with its analysis [...]

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What a Deal! Car Dealers Retain Control over Their Own Data

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court’s conclusion that there is no conflict between an Arizona statute aimed at strengthening privacy protections for consumers whose data is collected by car dealers and the Copyright Act provision that grants the owner of a copyrighted work the exclusive right “to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies.” CDK Global LLC v. Mark Brnovich, et al., Case No. 20-16469 (9th Cir. Oct. 25, 2021) (Miller, J.)

Car dealers use specialized dealer management software (DMS), which at its core is a database containing information about a dealer’s customers, vehicles, accounting, parts and services. Some of the data includes personal information, such as social security numbers and credit histories. The data is used for a variety of tasks, from financing to inventory management. Dealers also rely on separate software applications for various aspects of their business, such as marketing and customer relations. For those applications to properly function, they must access the data stored in a dealer’s DMS.

CDK is a technology company that licenses DMS to dealers. In the past, CDK allowed dealers to share access to the DMS with third-party companies that would integrate data from the DMS with other software applications. Recently, however, CDK began to prohibit the practice and instead offered its own data integration services to dealers.

In 2019, the Arizona legislature enacted a statute, known as the Dealer Law, to ensure that dealers retain control over their data. There are two provisions of the Dealer Law central to this case. First, the statute prohibits DMS providers from taking any actions (contractual, technical or otherwise) to prohibit a dealer’s ability to protect, store, copy, share or use the data stored in its DMS. Second, the statute requires DMS providers to adopt and make available a standardized framework for the exchange, integration and sharing of data.

CDK sued the attorney general of Arizona for declaratory and injunctive relief, asserting a range of claims. In one of its claims, CDK argued that the Dealer Law is preempted by the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq. CDK asserted that the Dealer Law conflicts with the Copyright Act because the Dealer Law grants dealers and their authorized integrators the right to access CDK’s systems and create unlicensed copies of its DMS, its application programming interfaces (APIs) and its data compilations. CDK argued that in all three respects, the statute conflicts with 17 U.S.C. § 106(1), which grants the owner of a copyrighted work the exclusive right “to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies.” The district court dismissed most of the claims but allowed the copyright preemption claims and a few others to proceed. Following a hearing, the district court denied a preliminary injunction. CDK appealed.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit found that CDK presented no evidence that the Dealer Law would require the embodiments of CDK’s DMS to persist for a period of more than transitory duration. The Court explained that the reproduction right set forth in [...]

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De Minimis Defense Doesn’t Protect Minimal Use of Concededly Infringing Material

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant in a copyright case based on a “minimal usage” or de minimis use defense. Richard N. Bell v. Wilmott Storage Services, LLC, et al., Case Nos. 19-55882, -56181 (9th Cir. July 26, 2021) (Wardlaw, J.) (Clifton, J., and Choe-Groves, J., concurring).

Richard Bell took a photo of the Indianapolis skyline and published it on various websites. Eleven years later, he registered the photo with the US Copyright Office. Bell later conducted an online reverse image search of his photo to identify potential infringers and subsequently filed more than 100 copyright infringement lawsuits. One of the sites on which Bell found the photo was VisitUSA.com. The image was only available to those who had conducted a reverse image search or knew the precise web address to the photo. Wilmott Storage Services purchased VisitUSA.com in 2012. In 2018, Bell notified Wilmott that it was displaying the photo without his permission. Wilmott removed the photo in response to Bell’s request. In 2019, Wilmott continued to display a copy of the photo, but at a slightly different address than before. Wilmott explained that its webmaster was supposed to remove the photo but instead only changed the file name. Wilmott subsequently removed the photo.

Bell sued Wilmott for copyright infringement in 2018, asserting that Wilmott infringed his right to “display the copyrighted work publicly” by making it accessible to the public on Wilmott’s server. Assuming infringement, Wilmott filed for summary judgment based on the affirmative defenses of de minimis use, fair use and the statute of limitations. The district court granted summary judgment to Wilmott on the de minimis use defense. Although Wilmott conceded that an identical copy of the photo was hosted on its server, the district court found no infringement. Bell appealed.

The Ninth Circuit noted that it had not previously addressed the issue of whether one “publicly displays” a work where it is accessible only to members of the public who either possess the specific pinpoint address or who perform a particular type of online search—here, a reverse image search. Applying Ninth Circuit precedent from Perfect 10, the Court concluded that Wilmott publicly displayed the photo.

The Ninth Circuit also found that there was no place for an inquiry into whether there was de minimis copying because the “degree of copying” was total since the infringing work was an identical copy of the copyrighted photo. The Court explained that it and a majority of other circuits do not view the de minimis doctrine as a defense to infringement but rather as an answer to the inquiry whether an infringing work and copyrighted work are substantially similar so as to make the copying actionable. The Court reiterated that the de minimis defense applies to the amount of copying, not to the extent of the defendant’s use of the infringing work. The Court also explained that the de minimis copying defense is [...]

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NDA Sunset Provision Means Trade Secret Use May Not Be Misappropriation

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court ruling in a trade secret misappropriation case based on a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that resulted in an award of more than $60 million, ruling that any disclosures that occurred after the termination date of the NDA were not subject to misappropriation claims. BladeRoom Group Ltd. v. Emerson Electric Co., Case No. 19-16583 (9th Cir. Aug. 30, 2021) (Murphy, J.) (Rawlinson, J., concurring).

BladeRoom and Emerson compete for contracts to design and build data centers. In August 2011, the companies explored a potential sale of BladeRoom to Emerson. BladeRoom drafted an NDA governed by English law, and the parties signed it. Critically, the 12th paragraph of the NDA provided that “this agreement shall terminate on the date 2 years from the date hereof.” The potential acquisition ultimately fell through.

Not long after, Facebook began plans to build a data center in northern Sweden. BladeRoom pitched a design in July 2012, and Emerson pitched a design several months later. In October 2012, Facebook verbally approved Emerson’s design although it was only 10% complete. Almost a year later, Facebook contacted BladeRoom asking about updates to its proposal. In November 2013, Facebook selected Emerson’s proposal. Facebook and Emerson signed a design-build contract in March 2014, at which point BladeRoom learned about the design Emerson had pitched. BladeRoom sued Facebook and Emerson, alleging that Emerson had breached the NDA and misappropriated BladeRoom’s trade secrets.

The case was tried to a jury. During trial, BladeRoom settled with Facebook but not Emerson. Before closing arguments, Emerson proposed a jury instruction excluding information disclosed or used after August 2013 (i.e., after the NDA allegedly expired). The district court denied the instruction. BladeRoom then moved in limine to prohibit Emerson from arguing that the NDA permitted it to use BladeRoom’s information after August 2013. The district court granted the motion. The jury found Emerson liable and awarded $10 million in lost profits and $20 million in unjust enrichment damages but did not distinguish between the breach and misappropriation claims in making its award. The district court awarded $30 million in punitive damages and further awarded pre-judgment interest beginning on October 30, 2012, and $18 million in attorney’s and expert witness’ fees. Emerson appealed.

The Ninth Circuit first considered whether the NDA expired after two years. Applying English law, the Court held that it did based on a primarily textual analysis. However, the Court could not determine from the record the date on which the alleged breach/misappropriation had occurred. Accordingly, it vacated the judgment and remanded for a new trial.

The Ninth Circuit also discussed several issues in the appeal that would be relevant if Emerson was found liable on remand. The Court stated that the punitive damages award was not supported by the record where the jury did not distinguish between the breach and misappropriation claims because punitive damages are not available for breach of contract under California law. The Court also discussed prejudgment interest, observing [...]

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Foreign Company’s Purposeful US Activities Blemishes Lack of Personal Jurisdiction Defense

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of a complaint, finding that the foreign defendant was subject to specific personal jurisdiction in the United States in light of the defendant’s marketing, sales and operations, each of which reflected a significant focus on the United States. Ayla, LLC v. Alya Skin Pty. Ltd., Case No. 20-16214 (9th Cir. Aug. 27, 2021) (Rakoff, J.)

Ayla is a beauty and wellness brand based in the San Francisco area that offers skincare and hair products through retail and online sales, as well as health and personal care advice on its website. Ayla has three registered trademarks “for use of the ‘AYLA’ word mark in connection with on-site beauty services, online retail beauty products and cosmetics services, and cosmetics.” Alya Skin is a skincare company with its place of incorporation and principal place of business in Australia. Alya Skin sells and ships its products worldwide but about 10% of its total sales are made to the United States.

Alleging a “confusingly similar” mark on its products and advertisements, Ayla sued Alya Skin for trademark infringement and false designation of origin pursuant to the Lanham Act, as well as unfair competition under the California Business & Professions Code and California common law. Alya Skin moved to dismiss the lawsuit for lack of personal jurisdiction. The district court granted Alya Skin’s motion to dismiss, finding that it did not have personal jurisdiction. Ayla appealed.

On appeal, Ayla challenged the district court’s determination that it did not have nationwide jurisdiction over Alya Skin under Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 4(k)(2). The Ninth Circuit framed the issue on appeal as a question of whether the district court “erroneously held that the exercise of nationwide jurisdiction over Alya Skin does not comport with due process.” The Court noted that the due process analysis under 4(k)(2) is “nearly identical” to the traditional personal jurisdiction analysis but “rather than considering contacts between [the defendant] and the forum state, we consider contacts with the nation as a whole.” Because trademark infringement is “treated as tort-like for personal jurisdiction purposes,” the Court focused its specific jurisdiction analysis on whether Alya Skin “purposefully directed its activities toward the United States.”

The Ninth Circuit’s inquiry focused on a totality analysis surrounding Alya Skin’s marketing, sales and operations, each of which reflected a significant focus on the United States. The Court noted that Alya Skin promoted its allegedly infringing products specifically to US individuals through “significant advertising efforts.” These efforts included, for example, an Instagram post directly referencing the “USA,” Alya Skin’s advertising efforts during “Black Friday” and Alya Skin’s reference on its website that its products were featured in US magazines. Moreover, Alya Skin presented to consumers “that its products are FDA approved,” which the Court found to be “an appeal specifically to American consumers for whom the acronym ‘FDA’ has meaning.” The Court also noted that Alya Skin’s volume of sales reflected a purposeful direction toward the United States.

[...]

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Unhappy Together: No Right of Public Performance under California Copyright Law

Addressing for the first time whether California law establishes a right of public performance for the owners of pre-1972 sound recordings, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found no such right for music and overturned a district court’s grant of partial summary judgment. Flo & Eddie, Inc. v. Sirius XM Radio, Inc., Case No. 17-55844 (9th Cir. Aug. 23, 2021) (Lee, J.)

In 1971, Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman of the rock band the Turtles formed Flo & Eddie to control the band’s song rights, including the hit song “Happy Together.” In 2013, Flo & Eddie filed a complaint alleging a violation of California common law and statutory copyright law arising out of Sirius XM’s playing of songs to which Flo & Eddie control the rights. Based on California’s copyright statute (Cal. Civ. Code § 980), Flo & Eddie argued that California law gave it the “exclusive ownership” of its pre-1972 songs—including the right of public performance—which required compensation whenever Flo & Eddie’s copyrighted recordings were publicly performed.

The district court granted partial summary judgment to Flo & Eddie in 2014, finding that California law protected sound recording owners’ right of public performance by granting “exclusive ownership” to the music, and therefore, Sirius XM must pay for playing pre-1972 music. The district court reasoned that “the plain meaning of having ‘exclusive ownership’ in a sound recording is having the right to use and possess the recording to the exclusion of others,” and further explained that there is “nothing in that phrase to suggest that the legislature intended to exclude any right or use of the sound recording from the concept of ‘exclusive ownership.’” The district court looked to individual dictionary definitions of the words “exclusive” and “ownership” to craft a broad meaning for the phrase “exclusive ownership,” ultimately finding that it must include the “right of public performance.” Sirius XM appealed.

In an opinion artfully embroidered with classic rock references, the Ninth Circuit found that the district court erred in finding that “exclusive ownership” under § 980(a)(2) included the right of public performance and remanded for entry of judgment consistent with the parties’ contingent settlement agreement. The Court faulted the district court’s dictionary-based approach to statutory interpretation, instructing that “[d]ictionaries and tools of grammatical construction can help determine plain meaning of specific words, but some phrases have a separate or more specialized ‘term of art’ meaning that cannot be stripped away from its historical context or subject matter area.” To that end, the Court took an expressly textualist approach to interpreting California’s law, looking back to common law in the 19th century when California first used the term “exclusive ownership” in its copyright statute in order to inform the understanding of that term as used at the time.

Based on this inquiry, the Ninth Circuit found that there was no recognized right of public performance for music and that California only protected unpublished works. The Court explained the distinction, stating that “[c]ommon law provides a perpetual copyright [...]

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Absent Proof of Government Ownership on an EEA Sovereign Immunity Defense is All Black and White

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of a motion to dismiss an indictment, charging four Chinese companies with violations of the criminal provisions of the Economic Espionage Act (EEA) and finding no sovereign immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) in view of the defendant’s commercial activities and failure of proof. United States of America v. Pangang Group Company Ltd. et al., Case No. 19-10306 (9th Cir. July 26, 2021) (Collins, J.)

No company in China had been able to develop a clean and efficient technology to produce titanium dioxide, a white pigment used in products such as paints, sunscreen, lotions, paper and plastics. A group of related Chinese steel companies (collectively, the Pangang companies) wanted to obtain such technology.

In the United States, after many years of research and development, DuPont had managed to develop a process to produce titanium dioxide and was unwilling to sell or license the technology to Chinese companies. Chinese government officials approached US businessman and former DuPont research engineer Walter Liew to obtain DuPont’s trade secrets. Liew agreed to become a corporate spy and managed to gain access to DuPont’s technology. Liew unlawfully transferred the trade secrets to the Pangang companies. The Pangang companies also conspired with unknown computer hackers to access DuPont’s computers to further steal DuPont’s trade secrets.

The Pangang companies were indicted on one count of conspiring to commit economic espionage for the benefit of a foreign government or instrumentality to steal DuPont’s trade secrets and one count of attempting to commit such economic espionage in violation of the EEA. The Pangang companies pleaded not guilty and moved to dismiss a criminal indictment for violations of the EEA, arguing that they were “instrumentalities” of the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and were entitled to sovereign immunity under the FSIA. The district court denied the motion, holding that the Pangang companies were not immune in light of the FSIA’s commercial activity and waiver exceptions. The Pangang companies appealed.

The Ninth Circuit found that the Pangang companies failed to show that they were instrumentalities of a foreign sovereign within the meaning of the FSIA. For a company to be considered a foreign instrumentality under FSIA, a government must own the majority shares in the company. The indictment included several allegations about the ownership structure of the Pangang companies. The indictment alleged that the Pangang Group Company was a “state-owned enterprise controlled by the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council” (SASAC), a “special government agency” of the PRC. The other Pangang companies were alleged to be direct or indirect “subsidiaries” of the Pangang Group Company. The Ninth Circuit found that the allegations, taken as true, affirmatively negated the premise that the other Pangang companies could be considered agencies or instrumentalities of the PRC because the indictment described all three of these entities as being “subsidiaries” of the fourth defendant (i.e., the Pangang Group Company). Because the corporate law [...]

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